For the love of learning; Volunteers continue tradition at Philomathian

Published 10:01 am Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Philomathian co-manager Judy Gerlach stands in the middle of the store. The Philomathian provides faith-based and ecumenical items for Austin and the surrounding area.  Eric Johnson/

Philomathian co-manager Judy Gerlach stands in the middle of the store. The Philomathian provides faith-based and ecumenical items for Austin and the surrounding area. Eric Johnson/

In 1907, a group of ladies got together to better themselves intellectually. A century later, the organization is still going and has turned into much more.

The Philomathian Book Store in Austin, located on 310 N. Main St. in Austin, is run by a group of about 20 to 30 volunteers. The store sells cards, Bibles, jewelry, gifts for baptisms and baby dedications, and more to fit a variety of faiths.

“We want to be ecumenical with the Bibles, and cards and baby gifts and things like that,” co-manager of the store Judy Gerlach said. “And we try to do it faith-oriented, but we do have some other items as well.”

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Gerlach works alongside co-manager Sharon Wagner, and although the group welcomes men volunteers, women have made up volunteer base over the years. The women range from age 55 to 80.

“We’re always looking for new volunteers,” Gerlach said.

There are two volunteers per shift, and with 10 shifts per week each volunteer works about four hours.

The original 11 members of the group, who’s motto was “Not for ones-self but for all,” quickly turned into 65 the next year, and in 1920 the group’s name was changed to the Philomathian — or lover of learning — and was devoted to book reports.

“It started way back in the early 1900s as a study club,” Gerlach said.

In 1946, the members opened a store and library in a room rented from Donavan Furniture, and were open one day a week. The store started with 85 books and accumulated up to 4,000 books by having rummage and food sales. The next year the store started selling a line of religious articles and gifts, which was started when an area Catholic church donated religious items members had been selling for special occasions.

“That was a real big business for them,” he said.

After moving spaces several times, the store finally settled in its current location in 2010. Profits from the store have been donated to many local religious and civic organizations in the past, but because of declining sales the store hasn’t been able to donate the last several years. Gerlach said the store still donates items to auctions, silent auctions and more.

The Philomathian — which means lover of learning — is open six days a week and also on special occasions when there are events on Main Street. The store’s present mission statement is “… to promote a place with Christian ideals, offering to our customers books, cards and gifts for all occasions. We welcome all religious faiths.”

The store offers many versions of the Bible, as well as books in Spanish and other languages at request.

“A lot of people, they don’t even have a specific religion, but they want something thats religious oriented,” Gerlach said. “So we want to get that message [out].”

Gerlach, who has volunteered at the store for about 17 years, said members are always looking for more volunteers, welcome from any church and any faith.

“It used to be easier to get volunteers because women weren’t working,” she said.

The other problem is there are many good organizations that need volunteers, and the store is a smaller, lesser-known organization that needs volunteers.

“We’re having a harder time getting volunteers,” she added.

Yet Gerlach said many of the volunteers have become friends after working side by side for so long and enjoy the relationships they’ve built.

Gerlach has had many people tell her they hope the store remains open in the future, because there is a lack of religious stores still open in many communities. She noted several of the stores in other communities have closed, leaving only one or none in that community, such as Owatonna. She said many people come to the Philomathian to purchase religious items and gifts, and said the store has a good baby and memorial department.

“It’s a small store with personal care, personal attention,” she said.